I was discouraged and defeated. I had moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania to help launch a gospel-centered church, but I had no idea what a spiritually stony place Scranton would prove to be.
There was a cultural malaise that enveloped the region. It had once been the epicenter of the old Northeastern coal belt, but it's boom days were long ago over. In fact, you could argue that the American dream had died in 1950 in Scranton. People in this rusting mountain city felt like they had been failed: the schools had failed them, politicians had failed them, corporations had failed them, and so had the church.
The city had been built on top of the deep coal mines where everyone worked, and when the mines were abandoned, not only did everyone lose their job, but everyone's property was at risk. Quite often the earth would open up and a parking lot or a backyard or someone's house would disappear into the great, bottomless void that was once the mines.
The precarious physical state of the city defined its psychology. People in Scranton no longer believed that anything good could happen there, and they also didn't believe that anyone cared. As a student in Philadelphia, long before our move, I heard regular jokes about Scranton, like, "You know who ran for mayor of Scranton? No one … and he won!"
DIFFICULTY AND IMMATURITY
I was 27 years old, full of energy and expectation, in one of the toughest places in the United States to plant a church. When we moved, I had no idea what I would face, but it didn't take long for the reality to set in.
We were a little struggling group of believers, trying to be a light in a city that was hurt, depressed, and cynical. The families we sought to serve struggled relationally and financially. There was one period of time when the unemployment figure in Scranton was 17 percent!
Sure, there were good things that happened. We were able to form a little community of love and provide a safe haven for people who had been hurt by the church. We started a Christian school as an alternative to the broken city schools. But ministry in Scranton was burdensome, and I was unseasoned, proud, and immature.
I was an honors graduate from seminary. I had won a variety of student awards, and I left seminary thinking I was ready to take on the unbelieving world. But as a young and inexperienced pastor, I wasn't ready for ministry, and my immaturity was quickly exposed. On occasion, I look back at my early sermons in Scranton, and whenever I do, I want to send a letter of apology to all the poor people who had to sit through them. I once preached a sermon on pride, and I thought it was the best sermon ever preached on the topic (an assessment that ironically lacked humility!)
It was a recipe for disaster. Not only was my environment very difficult to minister into, but my immaturity was being exposed all over the place. When difficulty and immaturity collide, there's always going to be some kind of carnage that results.
It wasn't long before I started to experience opposition, both from outside the church and regular criticism from within. It seemed mean and disrespectful to me at the time. After all, I had moved my family to this hard place, I was working very hard every day for long hours, and I was doing my best to use the gifts that God had given me. "Give me a break!" I thought. But looking back, much of their criticism was valid.
THE CONVERSATION THAT MADE ME WANT TO END IT
One Sunday evening, a man in our little church called and asked if we could get together to talk. Dinner-time was the only availability I had the following day, so my wife Luella prepared a meal for us up in my third floor office.
Going into the meeting, I was expecting this man to tell me how convicted he was by my sermon and how he needed some counsel as a result. But it became very clear that he didn't want to talk about my sermon, or himself; no, he wanted to talk about me. Neither one of us touched our meals.
He started by criticizing the way I preached and ended up criticizing everything about me. I couldn't believe what I was hearing! Then, he asked if I would follow him to his house because his wife wanted to talk to me as well. When I arrived, she did the same thing her husband had done, for what seemed like an eternity. To cap it all off, they told me that many other people in our little church felt the same way they did.
That night as I drove back home, I didn't just want to quit pastoral ministry - I wanted to die. I felt exposed, judged, and condemned, and I didn't know how I could go on if people felt this way about me. How could I offer them pastoral counsel? How could I stand before them and preach? How could I ask them to trust and follow my leadership? How could I encourage them to invite others to join us as well?
The call to pastor in Scranton that I had so joyfully accepted now seemed impossible. The people that I thought loved and supported me now seemed like a gathering of critics. I was a broken pastor and I didn't know how to go on.
The next few weeks felt as if I was slogging through deep mud in complete darkness with no destination in sight. I went through the pastoral motions, but my heart had left Scranton. The only way I made it through each week was to fantasize about ministry opportunities in other locations.
In my mind, I would rise to the throne as sovereign and create an ideal pastoral scenario, with a church community that loved me and my preaching and experienced plenty of ministry success. These fantasies were the only pleasure I found in those dark weeks; it was like spiritual masturbation. The only problem was that I would wake up again to the reality of opposition outside and criticism inside, and the despondency would quickly wash over me again.
I finally resolved that my only escape would be to quit. I had an education degree, and I had helped found a school, so I began to look for opportunities in the field of Christian education. No one knew that I was doing this - not the congregation, not my fellow leaders, and not even my wife.
It was all fantasy at first, but before long, I wanted to experience that fantasy first hand. I found a great job in California and began to make initial contact. I went first to Luella, and then to my leaders and told them that I just couldn't pastor in Scranton anymore; I was going to quit. Luella simply counseled me not to do anything until I was sure, and my leaders begged me not to leave. But I was ready to leave; I had no willpower or strength to continue. I couldn't imagine any scenario where staying would work for out me or for the congregation. It seemed that they didn't trust me anymore, and I was surely having trouble trusting them.
I finally told the leadership that I was done and that I wanted to schedule a Sunday to announce my resignation. I couldn't wait to get the burden of Scranton off my shoulders and move to what seemed to be so much better.
THE CONVERSATION THAT SAVED MY MINISTRY
The Sunday of my resignation came, and at the end of the service with two leaders standing with me, I made my announcement. The small congregation that gathered that infamous morning was shocked and surprised.
I remained up front after the service and talked with person after person who was saddened by my departure. "Even critics can be nice at times," I thought. But their sadness didn't move me at all. When the group finally melted away, I was still committed to leave. There was no one left in the little building we were renting, so I went to lock the front porch.
What happened next changed my life forever.
I turned around after locking the door to find Bob Wescott standing on the porch; he had been waiting for me. Bob was the oldest man in our congregation, a dear man, but in a deepening struggle with depression. He wasn't a counselor or a teacher, just an about-to-retire railroad man.
When I saw him, I immediately wished he wasn't there. I just wanted to go quietly home. I didn't want to talk to anyone or have another painfully awkward and discouraging conversation. He looked at me face-to-face, and I almost said, "Bob, I don't know why you waited for me, but I just can't talk right now." But I kept mouth shut.
With a tender voice, Bob said, "Can I say something to you? It will only take a minute."
I said, "Sure."
Then he said, "I know you're discouraged, but I want you to hear what I'm about to say: we know that you're young and a bit immature." (I thought, "Well that's a great start!")
He continued. "Paul, we haven't asked you to leave." Then he dropped this bomb of a question on me: "Where is the church going to get mature pastors if immature pastors leave?"
The question immediately exploded my resolve to leave. As I have recounted this conversation to others throughout the years, I have said that in that moment, I felt like God had nailed my shoes to the porch of that church. I knew immediately that I couldn't quit.
THE TRANSFORMING POWER OF WORDS
By God's grace, I understood what was happening in that moment. It wasn't just the words of Bob Wescott that I had to deal with; no, I was convinced that God has raised up this discouraged older man to speak rescuing wisdom to a proud young pastor who was about to run away. I wasn't about to run just from Scranton – I was about to embark on Jonah's journey and run from God. But an unlikely man spoke the words of God to unwilling ears and everything changed.
I'm so glad that Bob Wescott was willing. I'm so thankful that he waited on that porch, so grateful that he spoke in a way that I could hear, and so amazed at the glory of the grace of the One who raised up Bob to rescue me from me.
One man, in one moment, was willing to speak the truth in love, and the story of the hearer changed forever.
Without that conversation, I would have quit pastoral ministry. I would have never gone to Westminster Theology Seminary for further training. I would have never worked for CCEF and learned to apply the gospel to everyday life. I would have never written even one book about God's transforming grace in the mundane situations, relationships, and locations of a broken world. I would have never experienced the privileged life of outrageous ministry blessings that has become my story.
God makes his invisible mercy visible by sending people of mercy to give mercy to people who need mercy. So pay attention to the struggles of others. Be willing to lovingly confront a fellow believer who's ready to run. Speak words of encouragement to someone who's ready to quit. Incarnate the presence of the Lord ... and watch what God will do!
It's impossible to capture in words the extent of the tender care of God's grace, and it's equally impossible to predict who God may use to extend that grace to us. So speak to your brothers and sisters with care - God may be using you to change a story forever.
Who is a God like our God?